Nearly six years after exploding onto the scene and launching the careers of dozens of black comics, HBO's raunchy and wildly successful "Def Comedy Jam" continues to be a force.
The show, created by rap mogul Russell Simmons, has served as an incubator for the careers of young black comedians. Wiry TV and movie man Martin Lawrence, MTV's popular Bill Bellamy, "Living Single's" John Henton, and a star of Columbia Pictures' "Poetic Justice" Joe Torry are some of the more well-known veterans of the "Def Comedy Jam" circuit.
The show's success has also spurred spinoffs, with promoters eager to capitalize on the audience interest in comedians with "Def Jam" experience. Tonight at Cal State Northridge the "Bad Boys of Comedy IV" returns with "Def Comedy Jam" veteran Guy Torry serving as host.
" 'Def Jam' is what got me into comedy," said Torry, younger brother of Joe Torry. "When I saw it, I thought, 'Here's a show that we can speak our minds on and not be censored.' It's definitely a platform for young comedians."
Hollywood, seeing the commercial potential of young black male comedians, jumped on board. Jamie Foxx has his own show, and Eddie Griffin now stars with Malcolm Jamal Warner in "Malcolm and Eddie." Both shows are on the Warner Bros. Network. Lawrence has become the most mainstream comic of the "Def Jam" clique, with his movies "Bad Boys" and "Thin Line Between Love and Hate" doing well at the box office. His TV show, "Martin," is now in syndication.
Comedian Pierre, who appears as rapper Dr. Dre's limo driver in the music video "Been There Done That," performed on "Def Jam's" fifth episode in its inaugural year.
"A lot of people didn't know that there were young black comedians out there," Pierre said. "Def Jam" showed that "black comedy was more than just Eddie Murphy."
Now Pierre is set to star with Halle Berry in the new film comedy "Black American Princesses." And he is also working on a live comedy album.
The show became a place where the hip-hop generation, weaned on rap's explicit lyrics, could laugh at themselves--with jokes about things like casual sex or being broke.
"Mainly it's being connected to your audience," said Bellamy during a break from taping his MTV show in New York. "I just go up there and talk about my life, what's going on in the streets and what it's like being a single guy out there dating."
Bellamy, who had plans for a business career after graduating from Rutgers, got his big break in 1991 when Simmons saw him perform in a New York comedy club and tapped him for the first season of "Def Jam." He recently worked backstage at the Grammys, covering the awards show for MTV. And Bellamy makes his first serious feature film appearance in "Love Jones," a hip tale of two young people finding love amid the dating perils of the '90s, which opens Friday.
He said that he hopes the entertainment industry opens the door to more African Americans but that it can rest on "who's hot and who's not."
Guy Torry advises being prepared for a window of opportunity.
"Being black and being in Hollywood, you have to be able to do as many things as you possibly can, from writing to acting," Torry said, then he laughed. "It's like being a piece of gum. They will chew you up and get all the flavor, and then when the sweetness is gone, they spit you out."
"Bad Boys of Comedy IV," featuring Darrell Heath, Lil' Bo P, Willie Barcena, Jason Murray, A.J. Jamal; 8 tonight; CSUN Performing Arts Center. $8. (818) 677-2488.